Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Martin Amis, Natasha Walter and Andrea Levy.


The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis

Reviews of the much-hyped new Amis novel comment on its preoccupation with sex, coupled with multiple allusions to literary classics. Peter Kemp in the Sunday Times and Leo Robson in the New Statesman are in agreement over the decline of Amis's high stylisation, which has lost its "scabrous zest" (Kemp), while his "voice . . . lacks the power it had in earlier works" (Robson). The structure is also "ramshackle" (Kemp) and "ill-shapen, lopsided, rough-hewn" (Robson).

What comes out of all reviews of this novel is its place in the Amis canon: "The set-up, a house party in well-heeled surroundings, recalls the one in his second novel, Dead Babies (1975)," writes Kemp. Robson places the style and subject matter of the book in a continuum with Amis's previous novels: "The book represents a return to the social and psychological territory of The Rachel Papers (1973), Dead Babies (1975) and Success (1978) -- pitiless comic novels about youthful hedonism and self-loathing, suffused with what the latter two books called 'street sadness'."

Meanwhile, Tim Adams in the Observer describes the book as "a flashy Decameron of the sexual revolution". Tom Chatfield in Prospect sums up the plot and premise thus: "It is 1970, and we are holidaying in Italy in the company of an attractive and improbably named young cast." For both Adams and Chatfield, the novel is a "comedy of manners", and the overall consensus is that it is entertaining but highly flawed. Chatfield: "As ever, it is brilliantly done; as ever, it can be wearing."


Living Dolls: the Return of Sexism by Natasha Walter

Much is made of Natasha Walter's latest work being partly a retraction of her earlier book The New Feminism.

Cassandra Jardine in the Telegraph announces that "a recantation is always delicious", while Jessica Valenti in the Observer praises its return to the "personal". Valenti is impressed by Walter's dealings with sex workers and by her lack of judgement towards the young women she interviews. She stops short of an unqualified rave by suggesting that the book itself stops short: "The book's set-up and subtitle promise something that isn't delivered: the full story."

In the Sunday Times, Camilla Long berates Walter's lack of conclusion-drawing: "Half Grazia, half felt-knickered left-wing women's page, the book's biggest problem is its lack of solutions, or any prescriptive thinking."

"Living Dolls: the Return of Sexism" will be reviewed in Thursday's New Statesman.


The Long Song by Andrea Levy

Andrea Levy's follow-up to the Orange Prize-winning Small Island has provoked diametrically opposed opinions.

Holly Kyte in the Telegraph deems it "a masterclass in storytelling". Kyte finds the subject matter -- in this tale of "a slave girl living on a sugar plantation in 1830s Jamaica just as emancipation is juddering into action" -- sensitively handled: "Slavery is a grim subject indeed, but the wonder of Levy's writing is that she can confront such things and somehow derive deeply life-affirming entertainment from them."

Conversely, Tom Deveson in the Times finds the novel unconvincing: "It's difficult to sustain an antique narrative mode while keeping it plausible . . . Invocations to the reader amount to little more than pointless postmodern padding." He finds that "the book's language falls short of its admirable ambitions".

Show Hide image

Stability is essential to solve the pension problem

The new chancellor must ensure we have a period of stability for pension policymaking in order for everyone to acclimatise to a new era of personal responsibility in retirement, says 

There was a time when retirement seemed to take care of itself. It was normal to work, retire and then receive the state pension plus a company final salary pension, often a fairly generous figure, which also paid out to a spouse or partner on death.

That normality simply doesn’t exist for most people in 2016. There is much less certainty on what retirement looks like. The genesis of these experiences also starts much earlier. As final salary schemes fall out of favour, the UK is reaching a tipping point where savings in ‘defined contribution’ pension schemes become the most prevalent form of traditional retirement saving.

Saving for a ‘pension’ can mean a multitude of different things and the way your savings are organised can make a big difference to whether or not you are able to do what you planned in your later life – and also how your money is treated once you die.

George Osborne established a place for himself in the canon of personal savings policy through the introduction of ‘freedom and choice’ in pensions in 2015. This changed the rules dramatically, and gave pension income a level of public interest it had never seen before. Effectively the policymakers changed the rules, left the ring and took the ropes with them as we entered a new era of personal responsibility in retirement.

But what difference has that made? Have people changed their plans as a result, and what does 'normal' for retirement income look like now?

Old Mutual Wealth has just released. with YouGov, its third detailed survey of how people in the UK are planning their income needs in retirement. What is becoming clear is that 'normal' looks nothing like it did before. People have adjusted and are operating according to a new normal.

In the new normal, people are reliant on multiple sources of income in retirement, including actively using their home, as more people anticipate downsizing to provide some income. 24 per cent of future retirees have said they would consider releasing value from their home in one way or another.

In the new normal, working beyond your state pension age is no longer seen as drudgery. With increasing longevity, the appeal of keeping busy with work has grown. Almost one-third of future retirees are expecting work to provide some of their income in retirement, with just under half suggesting one of the reasons for doing so would be to maintain social interaction.

The new normal means less binary decision-making. Each choice an individual makes along the way becomes critical, and the answers themselves are less obvious. How do you best invest your savings? Where is the best place for a rainy day fund? How do you want to take income in the future and what happens to your assets when you die?

 An abundance of choices to provide answers to the above questions is good, but too much choice can paralyse decision-making. The new normal requires a plan earlier in life.

All the while, policymakers have continued to give people plenty of things to think about. In the past 12 months alone, the previous chancellor deliberated over whether – and how – to cut pension tax relief for higher earners. The ‘pensions-ISA’ system was mooted as the culmination of a project to hand savers complete control over their retirement savings, while also providing a welcome boost to Treasury coffers in the short term.

During her time as pensions minister, Baroness Altmann voiced her support for the current system of taxing pension income, rather than contributions, indicating a split between the DWP and HM Treasury on the matter. Baroness Altmann’s replacement at the DWP is Richard Harrington. It remains to be seen how much influence he will have and on what side of the camp he sits regarding taxing pensions.

Meanwhile, Philip Hammond has entered the Treasury while our new Prime Minister calls for greater unity. Following a tumultuous time for pensions, a change in tone towards greater unity and cross-department collaboration would be very welcome.

In order for everyone to acclimatise properly to the new normal, the new chancellor should commit to a return to a longer-term, strategic approach to pensions policymaking, enabling all parties, from regulators and providers to customers, to make decisions with confidence that the landscape will not continue to shift as fundamentally as it has in recent times.

Steven Levin is CEO of investment platforms at Old Mutual Wealth.

To view all of Old Mutual Wealth’s retirement reports, visit: products-and-investments/ pensions/pensions2015/